Every resident of the White House understands, or should understand, that he or she is a temporary occupant — of the building and the office. The beauty and strength of our democracy is that in every presidential election, it is the people, through their votes, who decide who will live in the White House for the next four years. As first lady Jacqueline Kennedy said, “The White House belongs to the American people.”
President Trump seems to hold a different view: that the White House — and the presidency — are his to do with as he sees fit. Thus we saw the dual spectacle Tuesday of the president misusing the physical space of the White House and turning the powers of his presidency into reality television — all in the service of his reelection.
He conducted a made-for-TV naturalization ceremony at the White House, and exploited it hours later as a convention extravaganza. He used the awesome constitutional power of pardon, entrusted to the president alone, as another segment of convention infotainment. Next, first lady Melania Trump turned the Rose Garden into yet another convention set. The Rose Garden, an iconic venue, has been the sight of numerous historic official and cultural events – from speeches to signings to state visits -– but never a political convention. It’s inappropriate to use it that way.
For those of us who have had the privilege of working in the White House, this was appalling to witness. I served in the White House during a presidential reelection campaign. I have watched presidents try to navigate conducting two enormous tasks simultaneously — running the country and running for reelection. And I recognize that this is exponentially more difficult in 2020, in the midst of the pandemic. But the naturalization ceremony and the pardon make clear that this staging was not a function of public health concerns, it was to exploit the trappings of the presidency. The absence of social distancing practices in the Rose Garden hours later only underscored that reality.
As former chief of staff to the first lady, my particular charge was to oversee and manage the public events at the White House, as when we hosted state dinners, historic bill signings or joyous national holiday celebrations. It was also my responsibility, along with the White House lawyers, to say no to events proposed by outsiders or political advisers that were too political or that were not representative of our entire country.
Maintaining that division, separating political activity as much as possible from official business, was particularly challenging during a reelection campaign. We did our best. This administration seems not to even want to try. This may be a matter of law, and of technical compliance with the Hatch Act. But it is more fundamental than that: a compact with the American people that the president represents our whole nation, meaning those who voted for the current resident of the White House and those who did not.
The self-serving use of the institutions of our government is heartbreaking. The majesty of the White House, and of our federal government, has been diminished and tarnished just at the moment when we need it the most. Too many of our fellow Americans are sick, dying, in economic distress, afraid and isolated. They need comfort and solutions, not pageantry designed to further the political interests of one party, and one man.